Monday, September 27, 2010

The Wild Bunch (1969) Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Sometimes I need a pick me up. Something to re-energize and not only get the creative juices flowing but the mind dreaming and thinking. I can get this from various sources: good conversation, music, books, movies, football but ultimately friendship. Loyalty and doing something special for someone you care about has it's own benefits. I'm always reminded of the closeness of good friendships when I watch The Wild Bunch. The Wild Bunch is often remembered for it's bloody violence and Peckinpah's slow motion action sequences. There is so much more here, the real message in this picture is about redemption and doing the right thing.

The Wild Bunch are a group of outlaws looking for one last heist so they can get out of the robbing game. They're getting old and looking to settle down, in a changing Western landscape that is leaving them behind. Peckinpah's casting for The Wild Bunch is not only acknowledgment of the old west, but also a tip to old Hollywood, The Wild Bunch a calling card as much as any picture for the change happening in American film during the late 60's. So we have old actors like William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien and Ben Johnson leading the action of a Peckinpah's picture, giving one last hurrah before the new acting gods take over. Thrown in is Peckinpah's own on screen alter ego Warren Oates, requisite for the wild of the title.

Holden is the emotional core of the picture. Troubled by the betrayal of an old friend who now hunts him down, Holden's Pike Bishop is not only the groups' planner and leader, but he's their moral compass. His beaten body is a metaphor for the weary struggle the group face in constantly being on the run. The Wild Bunch disagree constantly, and macho stand offs are constant between themselves. But Peckinpah shows us the crude humor and closeness of The Wild Bunch, which lends complete credibility to the massacre at the end. These friends will ultimately die for each other. The stand off in Mexico at the end is about loyalty to a friend and doing it for the hell of it, because there is nothing better to do than going out in a blaze of glory. It's this sense of morality mixed with rebelliousness that ultimately makes The Wild Bunch such a moving picture.

Peckinpah's film looks exquisite, especially the Mexican scenes. He imbues his film with documentary like scenes just showing how it is. The Wild Bunch has had influence, you can catch it in the films of Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, The Coen Brothers, John Woo and others. They still miss the emotional qualities Peckinpah brings to his cinema, often just aping the technical aspects.  Better was still to come from Sam Peckinpah with the melancholy grace of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. But The Wild Bunch was his initial roar, his first film that showed his vision complete. It's acknowledged for sure, but The Wild Bunch is still inspiring and still a masterpiece.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Windtalkers (2002) Directed by John Woo

War, what is it good for? Apparently a host of war movies. Hollywood still churns these things out at an alarming rate. Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Black Hawk Down, Valkyrie.  It seems strange in this day and age that intelligent film makers still make the kind of war movie that offers no real political context but are pictures about individual heroics in any given situation.

It's possible that John Woo's Windtalkers is trying to convey a message of racial tolerance with it's story of two Navajo Marines using their native language as unbreakable codes to further the US army's battle against the Japanese in the Second World War. Of course the Navajo are treated with suspicion and racist insults by the good old US Marines they fight alongside. Clint Eastwood covered the political implication of this implicit racism with more subtlety in the disappointing Flags Of Our Fathers

Macho spirit is still alive and well in Windtalkers,  and it seems just showing that you can become a killing machine, weather Navajo or not is enough to get those pesky racists on your side. So much for a thoughtful discussion on racism in the armed forces. Windtalkers really is quite awful. This film pretty much ended Woo's patchy association with Hollywood and you can tell that the film has been compromised. Woo's usual high standard of action sequences are missing here, replaced by a journeyman approach to visual combat.

The only redeeming feature here is another great Nicholas Cage performance as a character who's on the edge and probably insane. He plays these so well, Cage is always watchable in this form. Unfortunately the rest of the picture lets him down in the most pathetic, cliched manner. Like the machine gun fire that's often relentless in Windtalkers, avoid this picture for the sake of your own well being.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Détective (1985) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

There seems to be a theme with the last few movies featured on My Lawyer Will Call Your Lawyer. Yes another cops and robbers picture. Here is yet another film about detection and solving cases.  Or, if we take into account the amount of scenes in Détective where very young ladies lay around just wearing skimpy underpants, perhaps exposure is the most apt description.

Godard's Détective is possibly the last real conventional picture he made. I mean conventional in the sense that it has a relatively clear narrative and a plot. The plot is basic : two detectives try to find clues to an unsolved murder and stumble upon a boxing manager's attempt to pay off the mob and money he owes to an old lover and her husband. The many books that clutter the scenes inform a lot of the characters. This has a similar playfulness to Godard's early pictures and some great funny lines. That makes the film sound more straightforward than it really is. At some point, you do wonder what the hell is going on.

As with a lot of later Godard the actor credits and screen titles appear a good half an hour into the picture. Johnny Hallyday is great as the boxer's manager and Nathalie Baye delivers as the love interest who can't decide which man she really wants. The ridiculous shoot out at the end feels like a way of wrapping things up as Godard seems to grow bored of the whole thing.Visually the film offers very little, as if Godard is tired and just wants to let the talking heads deliver their lines.

This being Godard, on the plus side Détective still offers a weirder take on the noir genre. The negative is a feeling that Godard has fallen out of love with this type of film making, although Détective never feels like a piece of hack work. Godard dedicates the film to John Cassavetes, Edgar G. Ulmer and Clint Eastwood. This is some concession from Godard of what he was trying to achieve with Détective. By no means a great film, but still an interesting one.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bullitt (1968) Directed by Peter Yates

Flu  and bronchitis have been keeping me indoors the last few days. Uninspiring food choices, meds and more meds, toilet tissue, runny nose blah blah blah. Coughing fits are regular, need something to focus on. Watching movies is easy. There's an unwatched pile on the shelf, get to it.

Steve McQueen is nowadays regarded as the epitome of male cool in 60's American cinema. An icon as macho film superstar who paved the way for so many to follow.  Bullitt is one of the reasons for this view, especially since scenes from the picture were used in a car add a few years ago. A whole new audience got to identify with the snappy dresser of Bullitt and the sublime Lalo Schifrin soundtrack. The myth grows. This cool perception of McQueen does undermine how good a screen presence he was.

The plot of Bullitt is  weak, it's a movie with little substance. Characterization is zero here. The less said about Jacqueline Bisset in this picture the better. The famous car chase nowadays seems overlong and just endless shots of cars going over the hilly streets of San Francisco. But despite all this, Bullitt is a classic film and a perfect example of that presence of McQueen's I mentioned earlier.

McQueen displays pure technique in this film, he's the only thing you need to watch here. Every frame he appears in is measured and assured. McQueen more than most actors new that in cinema the relationship with the camera was everything.  Steve doesn't have many lines in Bullitt. He has a series of intense facial expressions that reveal all you need to know about his character. McQueen personifies economy and control. His performance in Bullitt is pure aesthetics.

Bullitt probably changed the cop film for good. It's stylized for sure, and Clint was surely watching this for Dirty Harry. Machismo, testosterone, intelligence and honesty. That's McQueen on screen in his best films. The  black pants, blue polo neck and brown sand shoes that McQueen sports in Bullitt are a high point of male on-screen fashion. Or maybe it seems this way just because McQueen is wearing those clothes. Bullitt is essence of McQueen. Study it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Blade Runner (1982) Directed by Ridley Scott

Blade Runner takes me back to a time when I was making my first record. We were recording in Brixton where Depeche Mode had made their first album. The producer of the record was this Irish guy who absolutely loved Blade Runner and insisted I see it. He played in one of these sub-U2 bands of the time who got quite popular. The record when it eventually came out did pretty OK and it was my start on a long road in music that I'm still traveling. I associate the film with quitting college, unemployment, playing gigs at the Marquee club, New Order (the band), Philip K. Dick and  William Burroughs, Thatcher, record deals and Italy winning the world cup and other things that were happening in my life as a 17 year old. So Blade Runner has had a personal significance to me ever since I  first saw it. It's easily amongst my favorite films.

There have been various versions of the film released (the original version had a Harrison Ford voice over in homage to Philip Marlowe), but this is the final cut of the movie and probably the most satisfying. It's interesting that the film is set in  2019, only 9 years away from now, yet we are still so far away from this world. We are not as advanced technically  as Blade Runner suggests, so obviously in 1982 the filmmakers thought it still possible that advances in space travel would happen,  yet damage to the environment (LA is permanently rainy and gray in Blade Runner) would send us back to the literal dark ages. Could still happen within 9 years.

Yes, this is a weird downer sci -fi, but the film is deeper than that suggests and still stands up because of it's emotional quality. It's could also be a Los Angeles noir and sits comfortably next to pictures like  L.A. Confidential, Chinatown and The Long Goodbye.  The hunted replicants (very advanced genetically engineered life-like robots) display a bigger desire for life than many of the cynical humans in this film. Fords' performance is perfect as Deckard the Blade runner of the title who's job it is to hunt down and retire the replicants. Deckard is as weary and vulnerable as anyone here. There is a suggestion in this new version of the film that Deckard is a replicant himself, related to a dream of a unicorn and a found origami unicorn. Interpret this as you will.  Sean Young, Edward James Olmos and the Vangelis score. All magic.

Scott smartly keeps this world grounded in familiarity, we recognize a lot of these surroundings. The sets and effects, pre-CGI still stand up and the movie looks better than ever. But the moving denouement, Rutger Hauer's replicant Roy on the rooftop in the rain with the white dove waiting to die. He teaches Deckard a lesson in humility and in the preciousness of life that we all take for granted. It's a mighty moment in film, and I'll carry it with me forever.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Antichrist (2009) Directed by Lars von Trier

Yesterday was a bad day. Flu has been hitting hard and the re-emergence of a personal nemesis was an extra irritant.  Antichrist had been lying on the shelf for a few months and I was wanting to watch something to fit my mood. I was looking for Horror, but of course this being von Trier nothing could ever be so generic. By the end of Antichrist  I realized I'd been watching a very depressed von Trier's most personal film full of conflicting ideas and not really what i expected.

Each new von Trier film seems to be greeted with equal shouts of genius or derision depending on your point of view and more often than not the results often lie somewhere in the middle. Through all the self mythologizing and the ego is an OK film maker. With Antichrist von Trier tries to deal with grief and relationships and obsession. The premise of a couple trying to mourn the death of their young child and going somewhere to heal their wounds only to discover horror is dealt with far better in Nicolas Roeg's 70's masterpiece Don't Look Now. The two films are very similar in fact and this film must have been an influence on von Trier basic premise for Antichrist. Unfortunately Antichrist falls apart half way through. It can't decide if it's a psychological drama or a horror picture and it feels like von Trier looses interest.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe turn in beyond the call of duty performances. They go bare here in many ways. It seems what ever von Trier asks his actors to do they will do. There is trust. It's sad then that once von Trier has set up the picture to be a serious examination of post traumatic stress and depression that he cops out and unconvincingly turns to horror to make what point?  If anything you get a real sense of conservatism going on, as if von Trier is holding back from showing true horror. Yes, pointless genital mutilation is shown, some nonsense about witchcraft and you're wondering where did the picture go.  Little hints abound that the events on screen could all be a dream, it could all be happening in Dafoe's subconscious.

One always wonders if every von Trier movie is gently taking the piss. Of course the female character of Antichrist believes that women are evil. She is a mother who's child has been lost and Nature (mother?) is portrayed as a cold and scary environment. Is von Trier mocking accusations of misogyny leveled at him previously? Who knows, but it shows a previously unseen humor in von Trier.  Antichrist is interesting but flawed.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Goldfinger (1964) Directed by Guy Hamilton

Nick :
Astrid is on tour for the next few weeks, so It's just me here.

I have not had a TV now for over 3 years. It felt and still feels quite liberating. Of course some of the time in front of the TV has been replaced by time on the computer. And then there is watching films.  Having been ill over most of the summer I watched a lot of films not reviewed on this blog. I watched  some of my favorite and assorted trashy gems : the Die Hard series, Independence Day,  Shane, Jurassic Park, Bridge on The River Kwai, Citizen Kane, Escape To Victory, Johnny Guitar and lots more. At some point I got a craving for the Stallone movie Cliffhanger, but that has passed. But Bond. Where was James Bond, 007.

When I was around 12 years old, they had the British premiere on TV of Dr. No, the first James Bond picture. This was a big thing for everyone, in those days there were no multiple TV channels to choose from (only 3), so a famous movie premiere  was a big deal. I remember Ursula Andress walking onto the beach out of the sea (a startling image for a 12 year old) and of course the nonchalant presence of Sean Connery as Bond. Connery has been the only actor to combine the wit, sophistication and cold-hearted presence required to capture the British steeliness of Ian Fleming's secret agent. Which brings us to Goldfinger.

The third in the series is the most iconic. The silver Aston Martin first appeared here, the golden corpse, John Barry's excellent Shirley Bassey sung theme song,  the wittiest Bond one liners, a heightened sexual (sexist?) innuendo, the lead heroine is called Pussy Galore! One of the best Bond hard man villains in Oddjob and some of Bond's neatest gadgets. Hamilton brings a flow to the Bond series that keeps the picture pacy. He also injects a bit of 60's style, which in this case has aged well. At the heart is Connery, possibly disdainful at playing Bond, sporting some of Bond's greatest on screen wardrobe, a cool presence. This film has been hugely influential as regards the action movie genre, but fun is at it's heart and it still entertains. After Connery, the series became less interesting where humor and outlandish set design took over from intensity. I'll always remember my Bond this way.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rebel Without A Cause (1955) directed by Nicholas Ray


A poster on a wall, a key ring, a clock, a place mat and dozens of biographies. James Dean in 2010 is big business, the business of lost teenage dreams and dead iconic film stars. The iconic quiff, the red bomber jacket, 501's, tick tock. Rebel Without A Cause is the movie that cemented Dean in the eyes of America's youth at the dawn of Rock n Roll. Ray's picture is a zeitgeist moment in cinema, capturing the nonchalance of teenage resistance to post war grayness, a scream that says: "there's gotta be more to life than this".  

But Rebel Without A Cause isn't very good, it's youthful angst filled with cliched youth talk that sounds embarrassing now. The success of this film and why it works is in the 'moment' and that moment passed quickly, all that's left is a dated monument to American teenage's earliest grumbling. So, it's a document more than a statement. Ray, a director I admire a lot piles on the red, this picture's look still dazzles, but where Ray often deals in a kind of psychedelic Noir, his Rebel is just too straight. Is this so the middle aged audience of the time could relate to the picture? The youth of this picture are so rich and middle class, they really are just rebelling against the boredom, poor things. The most interesting sub-text to the film is the heavy homosexual current between Dean's Jim Stark and the lost Plato (a seriously good looking Sal Mineo). It's amazing that Natalie Wood's Judy is an afterthought to the homoerotic bonding on display. 

Despite all its faults, Rebel Without A Cause is still worth a look. It's still Nicholas Ray behind the camera. The movie settles down half way through,  the characters slowly develop even if the plot is beyond simplistic. Dean's films can never live up to the legend, expectations will be crushed. He just didn't have enough time to show us if he was good or not. Still there's glimpses, here he's part Brando (when wild) and part Clift (when being sensitive). Dean is a teeny-bopper version of the method, not too deep, but cute when he's angry. And the point is, he wears a red bomber jacket like no one before or since.

Earlier on the day that I watched Rebel Without A Cause, I stood with my mother at the poetry section of a bookstore and discussed the teenage appeal to over-the-top dramatics. My point being that around the age of 17 or so, we feel sadness and happiness, love and hate so vividly that it constitutes a special state of mind/body. At that age teenagers are drawn to and touched by explosive drama, big operatic expressions of emotions – not because they display such behavior themselves but because they feel it.
That's the feeling I am left with thinking back on my own experience.

The same evening I curl up on our ocean gray couch and Rebel Without A Cause reminds me that before the birth of youth culture (with its immediate products such as rock'n'roll), there was the internal need to rebel against something (manifested in parents and in the surrounding order of the society). The dramatic overpowering teenage feeling preceded what is now known as the most glorified time of life – everybody wants to be young!

Rebel Without A Cause is a little bit simplistic and naive. All these young people are taking themselves so seriously but why are they suffering so? There are no nuances or lighter shades to emotions and actions here: when one boyfriend dies in a 'chickenrun' it takes Judy (Natalie Wood) only some minutes to warm up to the winner, Jim, who survived (James Dean). Yes, it is true, some of us do not come out alive from the dramatics of our teenage years. And some of us continue to rebel without a clear cause.

I note with strange delight that Rebel Without A Cause offers the parents or the lack of parenting as the main reason for these youths to be lost and in pain. 1955 gave the world rock music, but it was also the time when introspection through psychoanalysis was exploding into the Western mainstream.